Hamas Delay in Releasing Israelis Underscores Fragility of Gaza Deal

Loay Ayyoub/For The Washington Post
The International Committee of the Red Cross transports hostages released by Hamas Friday through the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt.

JERUSALEM – Hamas released a second group of Israeli hostages late Saturday, capping a nerve-racking day of delays and complications that underscored the fragility of the deal for a pause in fighting in Gaza, the exchange of captives and the delivery of more aid to the beleaguered enclave.

The pause held for a second day, but a challenge by Hamas to Israel’s implementation of the agreement delayed the planned release of Israeli hostages by seven hours, as Qatari and Egyptian diplomats held emergency talks with both sides to salvage the deal.

Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said late Saturday that the dispute had been resolved and that the exchange would proceed. Qatar and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is facilitating the transfers, said 13 Israeli hostages had been freed and were on their way to the Rafah crossing in Egypt. Israel reciprocated by releasing 39 Palestinian prisoners, according to Israel’s prison service.

The release was the second of the four-day pause, during which Hamas is to free a total of 50 hostages kidnapped from Israel on Oct. 7 in exchange for 150 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. On Friday, Hamas released 13 Israelis and Israel released 39 Palestinians.

Four Thai nationals were also released Saturday, according to Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces. Hamas freed 10 Thais and one Filipino on Friday, and credited the efforts of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Iran also claimed credit for their release.

Hamas on Saturday threatened to stop releasing hostages, alleging that Israel had not allowed humanitarian aid to reach the northern Gaza Strip, scene of the heaviest fighting, or to observe an agreement on the sequencing of the release of Palestinian prisoners.

“The aid Friday did not reach the north,” Hamas spokesman Basem Naim told The Washington Post, and “they didn’t abide by the standards of the release of Palestinian prisoners.”

Israel did not respond to the allegations publicly.

Spokespeople for the Palestine Red Crescent Society and the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees told The Post that aid reached some but not all parts of northern Gaza on Saturday, including from a convoy of 59 mostly Red Crescent trucks.

Israel has declared some areas to be military zones and blocked aid groups from entering, said Nebal Farsakh, a spokeswoman for the Red Crescent in Ramallah in the West Bank.

“Our paramedics and ambulances are still completely prevented access to many areas and so we are unable to reach those injured in the last three weeks, if they are still alive,” Farsakh said. “We were hoping that we would be given safe access to those areas.”

On Friday, 13 hostages were taken from Gaza to Egypt and flown to Israel, and at least 33 Palestinians were released from Israeli prisons and bused to the West Bank. The ICRC is facilitating releases on both sides.

Under the agreement, Israel is to release three Palestinian prisoners for every Israeli hostage Hamas frees. Most on both sides are women and children.

Videos and photographs released to Israeli media by the Schneider Children’s Medical Center east of Tel Aviv, where some hostages were taken, showed joyful reunions with families Saturday.

One video shows 9-year-old Ohad Munder, freed with his mother and grandmother, spotting his father and running into his arms. The boy’s stepfather remains in Gaza.

A photograph shows 5-year old Emilia Aloni, freed with her mother, hugging her grandmother.

Videos posted on social media showed similarly joyful scenes in the West Bank, where Palestinian women and children freed by Israel were reunited with their families. A bus carrying Red Cross staff and the prisoners as part of the second day’s releases arrived to a crowd of supporters holding flags in the occupied West Bank early Sunday.

The pause, which started at 7 a.m. Friday, brought a momentary if tense calm to a conflict that has devastated both sides. Hamas and other fighters killed at least 1,200 people in 22 Israeli communities in their surprise attack on Oct. 7 and took another 240 hostage. Israel responded with a military campaign that has caused the deaths of more than 13,300 people in Gaza and displaced an estimated 1.7 million – 80 percent of the population.

The break also provided an opportunity to increase the volume of much-needed fuel and other humanitarian aid delivered to Gaza’s 2.2 million civilians, who have been under a near-total siege since Oct. 7. The Palestinian Red Crescent said it received 196 truckloads of aid Friday.

World leaders have expressed hope that the pause may be extended. “The chances are real,” President Biden said Friday in Nantucket, Mass., where he spent Thanksgiving. “So far, it’s gone well.”

Egypt is engaged in intensive talks with Palestinians and Israelis for an extension of the pause in fighting to allow for the release of a greater number of captives, government spokesman Diaa Rashwan said.

But it was unclear whether Israel would be willing to extend the pause. Israeli military leaders said Saturday that they were committed to resuming attacks inside the Gaza Strip after the temporary break.

“The time frame for the pause is short,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said during a visit to troops in Gaza. “Any further negotiations will be held under fire.”

The Israel Defense Forces was using the pause to prepare for “the next phases of the war,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Friday. Commanders have stressed that the conflict is not over; the goal of their campaign is to eradicate Hamas from Gaza.

For the families of the estimated 190 hostages not covered by the deal, the releases have been bittersweet. Noam Peri’s 79-year-old father isn’t coming home, but she received good news.

“I can tell you this morning that we have a sign of life from my father,” Peri said. “We know he’s alive from other people from the community who were released yesterday.”

But his health is frail, and she worries that he won’t be able to survive much longer in captivity. The news that he is alive “brings a lot of hope,” she said, but more hostages must be freed urgently. “We don’t know how much time they’re going to be able to hold on there.”

Conditions for people in Gaza remain miserable. Hundreds of thousands of people living in the northern part of the enclave have crowded into the south to shelter in tents, abandoned buildings and, in some cases, the open air.

“We still suffer,” said Hazem Emad Susi, 49, who fled his home in Gaza City for the south.

“There are no bombardments, but we have no electricity, struggle to get water, food, medicine and communicate with our beloved family and friends. . . . Nobody knows what will come after this little window of quietness.”

The first 13 Israeli hostages released were reported on Saturday to be medically stable after 49 days in captivity by the two hospitals that admitted them. They included four children, their three mothers and a grandmother who were transferred to Schneider Children’s Medical Center.

Five elderly women, who were released without other members of their family, were taken to Wolfson Medical Center south of Tel Aviv, where they received similar treatment, the hospital said.